Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

You're in Paris.  It's 1913 and you've just entered the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Within the large and beautiful theatre the crowd is tightly packed, all eagerly anticipating the premier of a young composer's new ballet.  The energy is thick in the humid air, and you can sense that this night is not going to be just any sort of of performance.

The house lights dim and the curtain is drawn quickly up into the fly space and you hear an ethereal, unworldly voice singing out high above the rustling bodies in the hall.  Unfortunately, that's the last bit of the music you'll hear tonight because you're sitting in the premier of Igor Stravinsky's (1882-1971) latest ballet, the "Rite of Spring" and half the audience just lost their damn minds.

Or just an average week in Springfield
There is a science that goes in to determining the point at which crowd mentality takes over and all hell theoretically will break loose.  Humans tend to be incredibly intelligent working in groups of 2 or 3. Any larger than that and a certain..."element" is introduced that alters the climate.  My college band director would refer to this as a personification of stupidity, humbly known as Mr. Stupid.  He's really not a bad guy, per se, perhaps misunderstood.  He's your friend, your brother, your father and your distant Aunt Gertrude. Mr. Stupid is that little voice that comes out when the momentum is not quite shifted entirely off the cliff of sanity into the valley of asinine, that simply says, "Do it."

And that is pretty much what happened on the April evening in a Parisian theatre.  Shortly after the introduction of the ballet, the crowd began jeering and heckling the orchestra, giving suggestions on how to proceed and lamenting the unarguably unique style of both music and dance to which they were being treated.

Within the crowd were two main schools of thought.  You had your upper-crusters who wanted to hear some pretty, inconsequential ballet and watch some chick with blocks in her shoes bounce around the stage for a few hours.  The other camp was essentially in favor of anything that would piss off the old geezers in the balconies.

I'm not sure today's culture can relate...
So, to explain what went wrong we do have to look at the choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky as well as the overall plot of the ballet.  The Rite of Spring explores Russian paganism and delves into a ritualistic homicide of a young girl who literally dances to death.  It's sharp, angular and violent.  The music was wholly representative of that.  If we look back into the growing trends from the Romantic era, music had become much more tactile and palpable.  It was being developed into more than repetitive themes and truly was arriving at a point where literally anything was fair game.  Stravinsky felt this, and was given the opportunity to explore the extent of his own abilities by his employer with the ballet company. Despite the creative team's anticipation, the French crowd was not completely ready for the musical affront they were to endure.

Fueled by the dichotomy of classes, they began fighting amongst themselves, eventually turning their mutual wrath upon the orchestra, who never stopped playing.  The dancers on stage couldn't hear their musical cues over the roar of the angry crowd turned mob.  It got so bad that at one point Nijinsky was shouting the counts from the wings.  Over 40 people were removed by force from the concert hall that had erupted in a riot.

The first run continued unabated with a few performances following, but the pallor of that opening night cast a deep shadow upon the work at large.  Nijinsky was later cited by Stravinsky for completing his vision almost to perfection, thus placing him side by side with the criticisms lodged solely with the so called "ugly dancing".

However, Stravinsky's music was also not spared from the slings and arrows from the pens of many critics of the day.  The score itself sounds to me very metallic in nature.  It's like a gigantic machine that's not quite running properly, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. The artists at Disney interpreted it as the beginning and the end of the dinosaurs, embracing the earthen and pugilistic nature of the work.

Today, it's considered a great turning point into the modern era of music, and is often cited by many composers who have come forth since, bringing unique and often initially unpopular ideas to the forefront of musical culture. The choreography to such abrasive music is a challenge to both the dancer and the audience, but I feel Stravinsky truly captured the anguish and despair that one might exhibit when exposed to such a heinous and vile act as human sacrifice.

And how
So today, you get two examples.  The first is a recording of the Atlanta symphony with no video.  The second is a dramatization of what the BBC interprets happened during the performance.  Youtube's being weird though, so I think you have to go to the site to watch it.  It's pretty good though, so it's worth your time.  If for some reason it doesn't start right, jump to 45 minutes in for the fun part.  

Homework: Listen to the first example with your eyes closed.  Picture how one might actually dance to this.  After you've had enough, watch the second example.  Bonus points if you listen/watch the whole thing.

See you next Friday.